Two sheriff’s deputies, Joshua Buerke and Leland Grossett, took gunfire to the face after a welfare check inexplicably turned violent Saturday outside the Salt Lake County sheriff’s headquarters.
Shots rang out at 10:29 a.m. on the grass along the north side of the building, across the street from a golf course where golfers were enjoying a calm, gorgeous Saturday morning.
The confrontation left the suspected gunman, an apparently transient man in his early 30s identified Sunday as Joshua Michael Johnson, dead on the grass along 3300 South and the two officers hospitalized. Grossett underwent surgery on Saturday for a bullet wound to his eye, which he lost, but he was upgraded to stable condition after being in critical condition before the surgery.
Leland was shot in the cheek, but was released from the hospital Saturday.
“We’re very fortunate that he is able to go home. He has a bullet that did graze right through his cheek. There’s quite a bit of damage on his face, but he’s coherent,” said Sheriff Rosie Rivera of Salt Lake County on Saturday. “I can tell you mentally, it’s tough on both of them. They have a lot to go through and a lot of other deputies, too.
“The job of law enforcement is becoming more and more dangerous,” she continued. “I am grateful to have deputies like these who are willing to put their lives on the line in the name of public safety.”
Speaking to reporters across the street from the crime scene as it was being processed, she said investigators were unable to shed any light on why Johnson would pull a firearm on the two officers.
“He did shoot at our deputies and our deputies shot back,” Rivera said.
Buerke and Grossett “have a long time to heal. It’s a struggle. We’re just fortunate that they weren’t killed,” she said. “They’re both great individuals and they’re strong. They were partners and they care about each other and they are in good spirits. I think the way that they have responded has helped everybody else respond as well.”
The deputies had been assigned to provide security at the sheriff’s office campus, which includes the Salt Lake County Metro Jail, along 900 West in South Salt Lake.
“What that requires them to do is to drive around the campus and make sure things are secure and also to render aid if anybody needs aid,” Rivera said. “This individual may have been on the grass. We don’t know if he was asleep or not, but something occurred to get their attention to go talk with him. And then it happened very quickly where there was an encounter and shots were fired.”
Police closed 3300 South between 700 and 900 West while investigators gathered evidence and processed the crime scene for much of the day.
“The investigation will continue for quite some time,” Rivera said. “They’re interviewing a lot of people. There were quite a few witnesses.”
The deputies were not wearing body cameras, but investigators are examining surveillance video that may have captured the shooting or what Johnson had been doing.
“It takes a toll on everybody,” Rivera said. “This is our workplace. I’m glad it didn’t happen yesterday when would have had a lot of employees here.”
Other law enforcement agents made statements in support of the officers. The Utah Highway Patrol said in a tweet that its “thoughts and prayers” are with the two men.
Attorney General Sean Reyes said his office is praying for them.
“These officers and their sister and brother officers go to work every day protecting our communities, including individuals in our prisons and jails,” Reyes said in a statement. “They do this having no idea what threats of harm will come each day. They serve with professionalism and dedication. They and their families accept these risks willingly.”
“I want to thank the public for the outpouring of support and well wishes for our deputies,” Rivera said in a statement Sunday. “We ask that the public and the media respect the privacy of our deputies and their families during this difficult time.”
— Tribune reporters Sara Tabin and Andy Larsen contributed to this story.